What Does Jay Bruce's Return Mean for the New York Mets?
Is the Hot Stove finally starting to get toasty?
Reports indicate the New York Mets have agreed to sign outfielder Jay Bruce to a three-year, $39 million contract, marking a return to New York after being dealt away at the trade deadline to the Cleveland Indians last July.
Bruce had an outstanding power season in 2017, hitting .254/.324/.508 with 36 homers and 102 RBI in 617 plate appearances. The 2.7 fWAR he posted as also his highest mark since 2013 (4.2 fWAR). Those 36 dingers were tied for 14th-most in baseball, and his 102 RBI were tied for 17th. He also showed better discipline at the plate, walking in 9.2% of his plate appearances. That was much better than his rate of 7.5% in 2016, and it was his highest since 2012, where he finished with a 9.8% walk rate.
Bruce has played 10 seasons in the majors, so it's easy to forget he's still just 31 years old. He had been playing on a bad knee from 2014-16, which may be why his collective fWAR during those seasons was 0.3. Over the last two years, he's posted a weighted runs created (wRC+) of 115 (tied for 13th among qualified outfielders) and an OPS of .824 (13th) while tallying 69 home runs, which is 4th among outfielders and 10th overall.
And the Mets got him at an average annual value of just $13 million over three years to play corner outfield, a position at which he performed better in last season defensively than in previous seasons. Defensive metrics can be shaky, but he saved 6 runs on defense in 2017, compared to costing his team 11 runs the year before.
Bruce should see continued success at the plate if he can keep his fly-ball rate up -- his 46.7% mark in this department was his highest since 2011. When coupled with a home-run-to-fly-ball rate of 18.5%, it's easy to see how Bruce hit 36 jacks last season.
His return to the Mets creates an interesting outfield situation for New York. Bruce will play right field, with Yoenis Cespedes the incumbent in left. And while Michael Conforto may not be ready to start the season as he recovers from a separated shoulder he suffered last August, he will rejoin the team at some point this year. So, someone will have to play out of position, and it'll probably be Conforto getting time in center field.
That's not a great defensive unit, and one could argue Lorenzo Cain's combination of offense and defense would have been a better fit, but he'll likely cost a lot more in terms of dollars. For now, defensive whiz Juan Lagares or youngster Brandon Nimmo will see time in center until Conforto comes back.
Bruce does help lengthen a Mets lineup that will be without a few key contributors from last year. Conforto is likely to start the season on the disabled, and Lucas Duda, Jose Reyes and Neil Walker are all free agents. Highly-rated prospect Dominic Smith is expected to take over for Duda at first, and Wilmer Flores is currently projected to take Walker's spot at second, with Amed Rosario the new shortstop and Asdrubal Cabrera as the everyday third baseman. Last year, those four players combined to hit 45 home runs. Duda, Reyes, Walker and Conforto hit 69.
It would seem as if Bruce did pretty well to get this deal considering how many power hitters are still on the market. J.D. Martinez, Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Carlos Gonzalez, Logan Morrison and others are still available in free agency and would provide a team with plenty of pop. Also, Bruce will cost the Mets about $29 million less than what the Philadelphia Phillies paid for Carlos Santana (three years and $60 million). Bruce's 69 home runs are 12 more than Santana's 57 over the last two seasons, although Santana has him in on-base percentage (.365 to .317), wRC+ (125 to 115) and multiple other categories.
Santana is also a superior defender and is a switch-hitter who doesn't possess the same kind of lefty-righty split issues that plague Bruce -- he has a carer .824 OPS against righties and a .712 OPS against lefties, while Santana's splits are much more even (.808 against righties, .815 against lefties). Those differences account for the discrepancy in their contract amounts.
If last year was any indication, Bruce's defense in right field is good enough that he won't be a liability to his pitchers, and his power production is still one of the best in the game. He's not a perfect player, and the signing does leave the Mets with some question marks in center once everyone is back healthy. It's also fair to wonder if New York wouldn't have been better served addressing their lack of punch in the infield.
Nevertheless, Bruce is still a good player, and should help this Mets lineup maintain some of its power presence in 2018.